Introducing Yesterday at the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival, festival co-founder Robert De Niro had a unique reason for endorsing the film. It made him think of a world in which there was no Donald Trump.
It’s outlandish and almost unthinkable given the state of the world right now and Trump’s omnipresence in the news and our every consuming thought. But so, too, is the central premise of Yesterday, which asks a similarly inconceivable question: What if the Beatles never existed?
The new film, directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually) is a musical fairy tale of sorts—or a musical nightmare, depending on your devotion to the Fab Four and purview of a world without them in it.
It is without a doubt a high-concept Richard Curtis romantic comedy, featuring the hallmarks of his most noteworthy films, which in addition to the indelible holiday mashup of love stories includes Notting Hill, in which a movie star falls in love with an anonymous bookshop owner; About Time, in which a man travels through time to nab a girlfriend; and Four Weddings and a Funeral, about a group of unlucky-in-love friends who encounter romance at a series of social occasions.
Yesterday certainly fits in with this oeuvre, though certainly doesn’t reach the benchmark of the best of Curtis’s work. It’s high concept nearly to a fault, stretching the logic of its own universe. It’s romantic storyline is slighter, and as such, the emotion more saccharine than swoon-inducing. But intact is Curtis’s playfulness with telling a love story—it certainly doesn’t get more whimsical than reinventing the Beatles—his cheeky dissection of celebrity and fame, and a quick, tart, British sense of humor punctuating it all.
The result is a film that’s fun and, in a world where Bohemian Rhapsody makes $900 million at the box office, will certainly be a hit, especially once trailers featuring star Himesh Patel crooning those Beatles tunes start to circulate. But as enticing and clever as the premise initially is on paper, its implausibility also becomes aggravating.
Patel is Jack Malick, an unsuccessful British-Indian aspiring musician who decides, at the protest of his best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) to call it quits. While biking home from his final gig in a terrible rain storm, there’s a freak global blackout. At just that moment, a bus crashes into him, knocking him out during the entirety of the power outage and, among other things, destroying his guitar.
When he recovers from the crash, Ellie gifts him with a new guitar, and he christens it in front of his friends with an impromptu rendition of “Yesterday.” They’re moved to tears, as if they’ve never heard the song before. He’s certain they’re pranking him. How have they not heard one of the greatest songs of all time by one of the greatest musical acts there’s ever been? Calm down, they tell him. It’s good, but “it’s not Coldplay.”
Jack runs home and starts furiously googling. “The Beatles” only yields a spelling correction and information about bugs. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” only surfaces images of red peppers.
This new alternate reality gives him divine inspiration. He, Jack Malick, would bring back the Beatles.
There’s almost infinite hilarity to be mined from the idea of a world hearing the Beatles’ biggest hits for the first in 2019, and, more, for it to be an average Joe of sorts to be the one introducing them to the work. (That the infinite hilarity is, in essence, the same joke over and over actually isn’t as bothersome as you’d think.)
He may know that he’s recreating the work of genius, but other people have no idea. When he plays “Let It Be” for his parents for the first time, they keep interrupting him, assuming it’s another hack song he had written himself. Frustrated, he wails, “You’re the first people on earth to hear this song! It’s like watching Da Vinci paint the ‘Mona Lisa’ in front of your eyes!”
When he plays “A Day in the Life” on a local news show, Ed Sheeran hears it and decides to take Jack on tour, though he thinks it would be a better idea to change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.” Then there’s the comedy of Jack not being able to remember lyrics to certain songs.
It’s all very cute! But then the more you think about the movie, the more irritated you become.
There are major, unanswered questions surrounding the rules of a universe in which the Beatles doesn’t exist. Chiefly, what happened during that blackout that eradicated them specifically? And what is the connection between them and the other things that Jack learns were also eliminated: Coca Cola, cigarettes, and Oasis. They seem utterly random, and straining to figure a connection between them is maddening.
Or is it actually fun? We’d say maybe it’s best not to overthink, but that becomes impossible. Even when it comes to the love story: There’s never a compelling reason given for why these two characters haven’t been together the entire time.
Roughly halfway through the movie you might have a realization, too, that there’s no gratifying way for it to end. We obviously won’t spoil how it ends, and only briefly chastise the morbid, crass cameo that happens and sets the eventual conclusion in motion. But the film by its own premise is written into a creative impossibility: Do you want him to get away with this lie? Or do you want to take this new career successful away from him?
The ride to that point, though, is pleasant enough. How could it not be, when it’s two hours spent listening to the Beatles? The truth is that, enjoyable as they are, none of the scenes of Jack recording the band’s songs are as rousing as the major musical moments from past films that Beatles songs have soundtracked, including one from one of Curtis’ own movies, “All You Need Is Love” from Love Actually.
But Patel is a force of a talent, and makes a star-making film debut here. James continues her track record of making the most of underwritten female leads, and is charming as always even in another thankless role. The surprising amount of screen time for Ed Sheeran, again, proves how much fun Curtis has when given the opportunity to take the piss out of celebrity, and Kate McKinnon, playing Ed and Jack’s manager, is a very funny scene-stealer, though she seems to be robbing an entirely different movie.
In the end, the film is a bit like going to see a very good Beatles cover band, and maybe that’s the point. It pales in comparison from the magic of the real thing, but, by nature, it’s going to be a lot of fun anyway.